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Consumer complaints lead to recoup of almost $147 million from American businesses

A customer shops at the opening of a TJ Maxx store on April 25, 2012 in Washington, DC.
A customer shops at the opening of a TJ Maxx store on April 25, 2012 in Washington, DC.
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The Consumer Federation of America released its annual report of consumer complaints this week, and it seems no business sector was left untouched. Shady mechanics, hidden credit card fees, missing-in-action contractors and straight-up fraud are just a few of the complaints on the list.

New this year, are real-estate-related complaints like high-pressure timeshare sales and assisted living facilities that misrepresent their services. The report also indicates grievances about cockroaches are being overrun by complaints about bedbugs. Positively, the 290,000 complaints resulted in a recovery of nearly $147 million for the parties involved.

The number one consumer complaint was with the auto industry; too many people felt they were leaving the lot with a lemon.

But a close second on the list was credit and debit card complaints, such as user fees tacked on by banks and ATMs.

According to the director of consumer protection within the Consumer Federation of America and author of the recently released survey, Susan Grant, the biggest problems come with the biggest price tags.

“Auto, credit and home improvement have always been somewhere at the top of the list, and I think there’s a good reason for that,” she said. “This is a survey of complaints made last year to state and local consumer protection agencies and when you’ve got a big ticket item like home improvement or auto, you’re likely to complain about it.”

But precarious financial situations in our slow-recovering economy is also affecting consumer and company interactions.

“Plenty of people complain about credit and debt issues because, especially these days, with people in financial distress there are more and more abuses in the debt collection area and people promising for a fee up-front to help them out with their credit problems,” Grant said.

She also said one of the top five fastest growing consumer complaints was in abusive debt collection tactics.

Online and on the phones, listeners ranted about poor customer service, “crooked banks,” complicated return and rebate policies that have you jumping through hoops, and “deals” that leave you broke.

“Whenever I’m calling a bank or a computer company with a question, I feel like never really know the answer to my question. They don’t seem to understand their own company or policies,” said Jay from Redondo Beach. “I usually know more than the person I’m calling and I ask myself, ‘Why am I even bothering with this call?’ They’re just googling on the other end, trying to figure out what I’m asking them.”

A consistent complaint with consumers, Grant empathized describing poor or inadequate customer service “frustrating.”

“When people have billing disputes or problems with the quality of service, they really want somebody to help them and they don’t want to be put on hold forever or have to tell their story to five different people,” she said.

Another caller, Joe from Brentwood, said while he understands customer complaints -- he’s got them too -- as a small business owner, he knows what it’s like to be the on the other side of the deal.

“I get very frustrated with complaints that are abusive from customers,” Joe said. He continued, explaining that his company will make exchanges even when it hurts them because small businesses rely on happy customers and word-of-mouth recommendations. “We lose money because we want to give the best customer service there is. I take calls myself, personally, and we try to do the best we can, but it’s very, very difficult.

Joe added that as a business owner, he sometimes feels like the company is a “prisoner of peoples opinions.”

Despite how frustrating it can be as a consumer, Grant had some simple advice to share. Yelling, she said, often makes situations harder on both consumer and company. Some customers may feel they have to yell to be heard, but she discourages it.

“We always tell people to be reasonable, make sure you’re talking to the right person, know in advance what you think the problem is and what you want to be done to solve it, and use a very respectful tone -- treat people the way you would want to be treated.”


Does this new study mirror your experiences? What bad experiences have you had as a consumer? What is your number one complaint?


Susan Grant, director of consumer protection, Consumer Federation of America (CFA); she is the author of the 2011 Consumer Complaint Survey Report published on Tuesday; The CFA is a non-profit consumer advocate association of nearly 300 organizations and it was established in 1968